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Fighting food fraud [Interview]

TAGS: Food Safety
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From the adulteration of baby milk with melamine, the substitution of horse meat for beef, and the recent fipronil in eggs scandal, the range and scale of activities which can come under the umbrella of food fraud is enormous.

Food fraud – the intentional adulteration or misrepresentation of food and drink for economic gain – is an age old problem, but one which has been of growing concern in recent years. From the adulteration of baby milk with melamine, the substitution of horse meat for beef, and the recent fipronil in eggs scandal, the range and scale of activities which can come under the umbrella of food fraud is enormous.

According to Sally-Ann Krzyzaniak, Research Fellow at the Portsmouth Business School, there are lots of simple steps a food business can take to help guard against fraud. We caught up with Sally-Ann, to find out more about this topic.

There have been a number of food safety scandals in recent years, what is generally the biggest cause of these large scale crises?

‘This is very difficult to say. You can split food safety scares into several categories. Firstly, you can look at whether there is a real health concern for consumers. For example, the addition of melamine to infant formula in China in 2008 reportedly affected 300,000 children and caused 6 deaths; in contrast, the horsemeat scandal of 2013, whilst big news and damaging to the food industry, was not a health issue. Likewise, the recent recall of eggs and egg containing products due to fipronil contamination is not because of any risk to public health (the amounts present being very small), but because fipronil is not approved for use in food-producing animals.’

‘These food scandals are all examples of food fraud, where products have been adulterated somewhere along the food supply chain for economic gain (for example, by substituting cheap horse meat in place of expensive beef). However, other food safety events happen inadvertently. For example, there might be a mistake made in labelling the ingredients or the “use by” date on a product, or there may have been a failure in food processing meaning that harmful bacteria might be present.’

‘Part of the challenge for the food industry is putting in place effective systems and processes to guard against both of these types of incident, to protect both consumers and the businesses themselves.’

What should companies be doing to ensure food safety procedures are met?

‘In Europe, all food business are required to have HACCP (Hazard Assessment Critical Control Point) based food safety management systems in place. A key part of these systems is to keep them up to date; if any ingredients, processes, equipment etc. change, the HACCP plan needs to be revisited and updated, and should always be reviewed at least annually.’

Sally-Ann Krzyzaniak.jpgWho should be involved in ensuring food safety is maintained?

‘I firmly believe that in a food business food safety is everyone’s responsibility. Of course, not everyone is in the kitchen or on the factory floor making products, but everyone plays a role in ensuring businesses make safe food. This might be the purchasing officers, who need to ensure that there are contractual agreements to meet the right safety standards; it might be the quality assurance team, who audit suppliers; or the R&D team who need to develop products with an understanding of safe ingredients, packaging and processes. And of course the commitment of senior management is critical: if there is a clash between product safety and the overall values and priorities of the business, how will staff know what is the right thing to do?’

How can companies guarantee that their suppliers are following the correct procedures to reduce food fraud?

Whilst HACCP based systems are specifically designed to address food safety, HACCP isn’t designed to help a business guard against food fraud. Over the last couple of years new systems, such as TACCP (Threat Assessment Critical Control Point) and VACCP (Vulnerability Assessment Critical Control Point) have been proposed to address this need from a technical perspective. Having appropriate quality checks and product analysis plans in place is an important step, but there are lots of other, simple steps a food business can take to help guard against fraud. We call this knowing the “red flags of food fraud” and it involves relatively simple checks, such as: are there purchases which bypass the normal systems and controls. Are you buying high value ingredients at a “knock-down” price? Remember, if a deal looks too good to be true it probably is!’

What is the most common type of food fraud?

‘From a criminal’s perspective, the ideal fraud is one which is unlikely to be detected, is easy to perpetrate and is highly profitable. This doesn’t mean that only expensive foods, like saffron or Manuka honey, are at risk of being adulterated with cheaper ingredients. Work which my colleague Professor Lisa Jack carried out with NSF International on the Food Fraud Temptation Model, showed that even so called low value products can be targets for fraud if they are sold in large enough volumes. An extra profit of a few pence or cents per kg could be seen as an incentive if selling tonnes of product every year. Commonly consumed foods such as coffee and tea might fall into this category, and you may remember the publicity about oregano a couple of years ago, when Prof Chris Elliott’s group found that 25% of oregano samples tested contained other ingredients, such as olive and myrtle leaves.’

What is the economic impact of food fraud for a company?

‘Again, this is very difficult to assess. The University of Portsmouth Centre for Counter Fraud Studies and Crowe Clarke Whitehill have produced some estimates of the cost of fraud to the UK food and drink industry, which sets the cost at 5.85% of expenditure, equating to £11.97 billion. Besides the costs of actually dealing with a case of food fraud (product recall etc.), companies have to face the impact of a loss of consumer confidence. Indeed, a recent report by NFU Mutual suggested that 72% of people believe there to be an issue with fraud in the UK food industry. With figures like this, investment in fraud prevention must look like a cost effective option.’

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